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Fire chief thinks furnace issue may have caused church blaze

Fire chief thinks furnace issue may have caused church blaze

Mar 13, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Fire investigators still are not sure what caused the Wednesday morning blaze that destroyed an old church building and adjacent apartment in the 500 block of East Fremont Avenue.

Riverton Volunteer Fire Department chief Mike Hutchison said he has ruled out foul play "to some extent," but the incident still is "a little perplexing" for firefighters, who were called to the scene twice Wednesday.

Crews first were notified of a small fire at about 4:30 a.m. Wednesday at the church, but Hutchison said that blaze was out by 6:30 a.m.

Fire officials re-checked the area at about 8:30 a.m., and Hutchison said the property manager was in the building soon after that.

"Then within maybe 15-20 minutes ... a Riverton Police Department officer saw smoke coming out of the window," Hutchison said. "He went and checked it again and saw there was something in that room on fire. ... It happened so fast."

The second blaze was a few feet from the original fire, but Hutchison thinks both incidents may have been caused by the same furnace malfunction.

"It kind of popped up in a different place that wasn't on fire the first time we were there," he said of the second incident.

The inside of the structure's walls may have been smoldering for several days before anyone noticed a problem, Hutchison said.

He added that crews had cleared the area after the initial blaze Wednesday morning but were not able to look inside of the walls because of the amount of clutter in the building.

"The place was basically used as a large storage shed," Hutchison said. "But we had cleared a lot of the stuff away from where the original fire was at and checked it with a thermal imager (Wednesday morning)."

On Wednesday afternoon, after the second blaze was extinguished, firefighters removed more debris from the area and took out floorboards to find the origin of the fire.

"It looks like it was just hidden inside of a wall space in an adjacent room," Hutchison said. "There wouldn't have been any way to find it short of tearing down the wall."

Local crews were on scene until after dark, and Hutchison said an official from the State Fire Marshal's Office was in town Thursday to help with the investigation.

Hutchison said three apartment buildings behind the church structure did not sustain much damage in the blaze, which destroyed the old church sanctuary and a smaller brick structure to the west. No one was injured in the incident.

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